Autism spectrum disorder and employment

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With best estimates indicating that 80% of adults with Asperger Syndrome have been unable to secure long term employment, Elisabeth Hill argues that more time, money and research needs to be invested into autism in employment.

Most of us are familiar in some way or another with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We have seen news reports, and watched films or documentaries that try to explain this puzzling condition to us. We may know an autistic child or even have an autistic child. All in all, around 1% of the entire population (1 in 100 people) fall somewhere on the spectrum.

Whilst we still understand relatively little about this complex condition, we do have a good idea of how it can affect the daily lives and education of children. A lot of research has focused on children living with ASD, and we know that many have good ability and a range of skills that are of huge benefit to society, including excellent attention to detail and technical skills. These strengths emerge out of a different way of seeing and acting in the world.

But very little is known about what happens next. What happens when children on the spectrum leave education and enter into the world of employment?

Until recently very little attention has been paid to the adult end of this group, despite the fact that there are more adults than children in the population. Most service provision resources and research funding for ASD focuses in some way or another on childhood.

Whilst this understanding is important, it is also a massive oversight. Each of these children will inevitably grow into adults, and it is at this point that our collective knowledge as a country on how to best support these adults fails us.

For all adults and families in this country, employment is a key concern. But this worry is particularly felt by families who contain members on the spectrum. A lack of secure employment places ongoing financial demands not only on autistic adults and their parents, but also adds costs associated with additional care, such as the benefits system, thus providing a significant economic burden to the nation.

Disproportionately high levels of unemployment are seen in autistic adults, with best estimates indicating that 80% of adults with Asperger Syndrome (i.e. a proportion of those at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum) have been unable to secure long term employment. And this figure is even worse for those with a diagnosis of autism.

To put this into context, let's compare ASD employment with other disabilities. Unemployment for people with disabilities in general is about 69%. And this compares to 43% of the general population who are out of work.

Autistic adults typically want to work but are condemned to a life of unemployment in most cases. Case studies suggest that unemployment is often associated with poor mental health consequences.

What can be done?

In 2009 after a series of campaigns and inquiries, the Autism Act was passed. This was the first ever disability-specific law in England and included the development of an adult autism strategy, published in 2010.

One of the five aims of this strategy was to help adults with autism find jobs. A great aim, but perhaps little more than a dream. With little funding supporting this aim, it is not surprising to hear that since 2010, little has changed for adults with autism in terms of employment.

Many local initiatives have evolved including companies that see autism as an asset to their company rather than a disability. A good, but by no means the only example is that of Specialisterne, a Danish social innovation company who have branches in a range of countries, including the UK. At Specialisterne, autism is the norm rather than the exception among employees. They report, for example, that their IT consultants are on average 10% better at checking software code for errors than their non-autistic peers, a clear example of where an employer would surely prefer to employ someone known to have autistic characteristics.

Other examples exist including companies in the banking and pharmaceutical sectors, but at present resources are limited and good practice is not shared in one place.

For this reason, our team at Goldsmiths, along with other organisations who promote and support autistic employees, have joined up as the Autism Employment Alliance to develop and promote support both for autistic adults seeking and in work, as well as for employers.

By combining resources and efforts, the aim is to raise awareness and maximise the support and opportunities available to all affected in a one-stop shop. It is also important to work with a range of professionals including work psychologists, those in Human Resources and Occupational Health. In order to tackle the ongoing issue of unemployment for adults with ASD, collaboration is key.